Recovering catholicity

Mar 31, 2014 by

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I still remember the words of my tour guide in St. John Lateran in Rome. She referred to our group’s Protestants with loving disdain. She announced, “For the Protestants here, I want you to remember that this was your ‘Vatican’ — the center of the Western church for centuries before you splintered away. Your faith has come to you through this space.”



I sought to find my own story in the midst of the grand, bright cathedral on Rome’s east side, close to the city wall. In my six months living in Rome, this worship space became significant as I worked to reconcile myself with the “catholicity” of my faith.

Walter Klassen’s book Anabaptism: Neither Protestant nor Catholic was published a year after I was born. His phrasing shaped many of the ways we Anabaptists have understood ourselves within the Christian story — as belonging to neither tradition. Upon reflection later in life, Klassen suggested the book might have been better titled with “both/and” rather than “neither/nor.”

I’d say it is clear that Anabaptists have been Protestants, but we have yet to live into what might be possible if we take our catholicity seriously.

In these days of Mennonite Church USA turmoil, what does it mean to embrace the best of catholicity?

Anabaptists are more than local, temporal communities. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes that to flourish in a global era, organizations will need to embrace both their local and global nature. In the church, this suggests both the local and the catholic (global) are essential for identity and decision-making.

While many of us are biased appropriately toward our localities, we cannot ignore our cath­olicity, our togetherness. Privileging local discernment alone can ignore both the possibility and responsibility of living within and incarnating God’s shalom intended for all of the world.

Localities can be just as toxic, menacing and oppressive as distant and hierarchal systems that don’t understand the local or respect the relational context — where we sit face to face, see eye to eye, in relationship with one another.

Neither our locality nor our temporality alone will effectively shape our discernment and trajectory in a global age. Our faith and movement is undeniably interconnected (even though at times we wish it weren’t) and providential (part of the holy intention of the Spirit to cultivate a peoplehood beyond racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, national boundedness).

Localities can become self-referential and ignore the voice of the other. Our willingness to tell the story of a God who loved the world so much must be tied to a willingness to do likewise across the chasms of difference of experience and interpretation.

Our lifetimes will be filled with relentless questions and complexities presented by the gospel and our cultural contexts. Though it may be easier to disintegrate into 100 million blooming localities, I wonder if the time and the Spirit might not require more of us. I can’t shake the idea that Jesus’ final prayers for us included a plea for “oneness.” I hear this as an invitation to catholicity — a community that goes beyond the local, into the holy intention of mutuality.

Withdrawing into familiar localities is the invitation of the spirit of our age but not the invitation of the Spirit of our Lord. The Spirit and the Word require much more of us.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.

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